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Carole Spiers


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How to recognise workplace bullying


Workplace bullying is definitely on the rise, not least because of the ample opportunities for cyber-bullying in our increasingly high tech work environments.

The situation is also not helped by the tough economic climate, which tends to have an impact on management behaviour and can lead to increased levels of stress throughout the organisation, not least if inappropriate tactics are employed to boost sales and increase staff productivity.
The problem can also be compounded if top teams work remotely or are too caught up in their own challenges to keep an eye on what is happening.  
When they finally realise that there is a problem, however, it is often too late to retrieve the situation and such inaction can lead to resignations or serious health issues and legal claims for compensation.
But while robust procedures and a zero tolerance policy will go a long way towards deterring bullies, it is often difficult to pick up the early signs and symptoms – even if managers’ eyes are on the ball.
So the key question is how does bullying behaviour manifest itself in the workplace?
Bullying behaviour can cover a wide range of both overt and covert actions. It is not unusual, for example, for individuals to complain that their professional competence has been called into question as a result of disparaging remarks or criticism from colleagues or managers, whom they feel are undermining their work.
These attacks might include overt actions such as a public ‘dressing down’ for alleged work errors, or covert behaviour such as circulating rumours or gossip that appear to question an individual’s ability.
Recognising bullying behaviour
But such scenarios can also include ‘non-action’ – for instance, not acknowledging and/or approving work well done or failing to ask the opinion of someone who is clearly best qualified to provide relevant input.
Bullies will typically:
  • Make unreasonable demands of their chosen target
  • Shout at victims publicly as a deliberate tactic to disempower them
  • Give instructions that are subsequently changed for no apparent reason
  • Allocate tasks that they know are beyond an individual’s ability
  • Block promotion by refusing to give a fair appraisal or endorse a pay increase or bonus award
  • Exclude the victim from discussions that are germane to their work responsibilities
  • Overwork individuals by imposing unrealistic deadlines on them and deliberately setting them up to fail
  • Micro managing the person concerned and checking every dot and comma in order to deliberately imply, in some instances, that they are incompetent.
Most bullies are secretive in their behaviour, but those who aren’t, generate fear not only with their target but also among those who witness it. Fear is a key factor in this scenario and bullies invariably pick on someone who lacks in confidence. But they also often target people who are popular and are, therefore, perceived as a threat. 
A key issue for individuals who are being bullied is that they often feel they have lost control and, as a result, are no longer able to carry out their duties without coming under threat.
Instead, they live from day-to-day as they fight to regain a position of normality, usually unsuccessfully. After a time, they tend to become introverted and shy away from contact with others in the workplace.
They may also appear tense, anxious, prone to emotional outbursts and become uncooperative. The stress created by bullying likewise often leads to minor illnesses such as headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and fatigue.
But if stress is experienced over a prolonged period, people may ultimately suffer more serious health problems, including ‘burnout’ and a breakdown. 
As a result, it is clearly important that employers recognise the impact that bullying can have on both individuals and the organisation as a whole. In particular, robust and formal policies and procedures should be put in place to deal with bullying or harassment issues.
Effective intervention
Going down this route will indicate that the company takes the matter seriously as well as provide it with a mechanism for dealing with complaints that are made through both formal and informal channels.
This approach will be particularly valuable if a case of intimidation or harassment against the organisation is brought before the courts or an industrial tribunal.
However, people are often reluctant to discuss their experiences of bullying due to fear of reprisals, further intimidation or the perception that they have a ‘black mark’ against their name that could damage their career prospects.
Therefore, most people are unwilling to take formal action, which is no doubt a contributory factor to the high exit rates associated with harassment of this type. But the issue could have been picked up during an exit interview by asking the simple question: ‘Have you ever been bullied at work?’
Undoubtedly the most effective intervention, however, is to train all managers in how to recognise the signs and symptoms as well as how to resolve disputes as quickly and effectively as possible. All too often, they fail to act simply because they feel out of their depth, are unsure of what to do and hope that the problem will go away.
Most victims of bullying, meanwhile, have two main aims – to keep their job and to have their working life return to ‘normal’. But these apparently simple goals can get lost in defensive positioning over possible legal claims and worries over future action to try and remedy the situation.
Bullying is obviously unacceptable in the modern workplace and an organisation’s action (or inaction) in this regard will be judged by its staff – with inaction usually being viewed as the equivalent of condoning such activity.
But generally speaking, people do not want to work for a company that has a reputation for bullying, not least because such behaviour is pernicious insidious and, as such, needs to be stamped out the moment it is identified or reported.
To do this, however, the whole organisation from the boardroom down must stand behind anti-bullying policies in order to demonstrate unequivocally that such behaviour is, and remains, unacceptable. 
Carole Spiers is a motivational speaker and author who has just written a new book entitled ‘Show Stress who’s boss‘.

2 Responses

  1. Bullying is very subjective

    It is not always obvious to outsiders, yet conversely, workplace banter can sometimes be misconstrued by people who aren’t in on the joke.

    I worked for an engineering firm where the most vile insults were traded constantly.  Racist, misogynistic and every other kind of awful language was delivered with smiling faces, and one’s standing was determined by one’s ability to come back with an appropriate response.  I was there for 18 months and never heard a single complaint. 

    Conversely, I’ve worked in offices where a single incident of raised voices would have someone scurrying off to HR in tears.

    I’ve generally found the more obvious the bullying, the easier it is to deal with, as there’s plenty of evidence, and/or witnesses.  Shouting, swearing, and verbal abuse is clearly visible to all, and just as clearly inappropriate.

    The worst bullying hides itself away.  It manifests as low-level control, micro-managing, and constant deprecation.  The victim is never praised, no matter how good a job they’ve done, but some flaw, real or imaginary, is always pointed out.  If challenged, the behaviour is explained away as a reaction to the person needing to be managed closely because they’re not quite up to the demands of the job.  I’ve seen it done so subtly that even the victims didn’t realise they were being bullied.  They just started to doubt themselves and their abilities, so they began to make more and more mistakes and eventually left, convinced they were no good at their job.

    It takes a certain strength of character to stand up against that behaviour, especially from a subordinate position.  It’s worse still when you’re new to a company, and you don’t know if what you’re dealing with is a corporate culture which demands excellence, or a genuinely bad manager setting standards so high that they can’t be met.

    What can you do about it?

    Document everything.  Even if it’s just a quick note in your diary.  If you receive negative verbal feedback, ask for it in writing.  If asked why, you can say that you’re sure this will be brought up at a performance review and you’d like to have some evidence of the original problem so you can show you’ve overcome it.  This works several ways – if you genuinely did mess up, this looks good because you’re taking responsibility for your own development.  If you didn’t do anything wrong and you get something written saying that you did, you have proof that they’re lying.  If you don’t get anything in writing, then at the review, you can mention it and say that as you didn’t get anything in writing, they’re obviously not placing any importance on the incident.

    Outside the workplace, look for a self-defence course.  Many of the better ones don’t teach physical self-defence as much as mental self-defence.  How not to walk like a victim, how not to look like a victim, how not to act like a victim.  How to deal with aggression, raised voices, and the adrenaline shunt that comes with  fear or embarassment.  It is amazing how bullies can pick up on the change in confidence that comes from learning how to handle unpleasant situations.  You might not be able to make them stop bullying, but you can make them stop bullying you.

  2. Workplace Bullying

    Targets, victims and witnesses of bullying have a few avenues to pursue (as compared with victims of sexual harassment) when subject to repeated and obvious acts of aggression, spreading malicious rumours, excluding someone socially or from certain projects, undermining or impeding a person’s work or opinions, insulting a person’s habits, attitudes, or private life and intruding upon a person’s privacy. Others include being rude or belligerent, destroying property, assaulting an individual, or setting impossible deadlines. Although bullying is recognized as detrimental to occupational health, there is little political or corporate interest in stopping it.

    In schoolyard bullying, the bullies are children, whose behaviour is controlled by the leaders, i.e. the school administration. In workplace bullying, however, the bullies are often the leaders themselves, i.e., the managers and supervisors. Therefore, reporting a bully to the HR dept, for example, may expose the target/victim to the risk of even more bullying, slower career advancement, or even termination, on the grounds of being a “troublemaker!”.

    Workplace bullying has severe consequences, including reduced effectiveness and high employee turnover. An employee who suffers any physical or psychiatric injury as a result of workplace bullying can confront the bully, report the bully to the HR department or to the trade union, if any, or bring a claim of negligence and/or a personal injury claim against both the employer and the abusive employee as joint respondents in the claim. If the law does not persuade employers to deal with workplace bullying, the economic reality will persuade them. Training sessions can help when combined with a confidential reporting structure, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of some individuals, who may need counselling.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author


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